Sao Paulo Feels Its Way Back Up From the Bottom


For the people of South America's biggest city, sipping an ice cold beer or a strong, sweet coffee at the Bar Brahma is a sure sign that salvation is coming to their long-neglected downtown.

An icon of Sao Paulo's cafe culture for more than 50 years, the bar has just reopened after a $350,000 restoration. It was much needed; just like the historic neighborhood outside, Bar Brahma had become a shabby, neglected memory of its former self.

Today it's again becoming a favorite for jazz-loving night birds, ladies meeting for lunch and bankers at happy hour. A whiff of old-fashioned elegance still hangs in the spacious salons, but the car jockeys and security guards patrolling the sidewalk 24 hours a day are unmistakable signs of the here and now.

"It's now the duty of every Paulistano to come here and have a drink," says manager Alvaro Aoas, using the name Sao Paulo's 17 million people are known by.

"We must all act to take back what was stolen from us," he said. "We can't just run away and leave the center to rot in the hands of the bandits and the cockroaches."

After decades of corrupt city government, a new mayor, Marta Suplicy, took office Jan. 1 promising a cleanup. Left-leaning but with close links to big business, her priorities are guaranteeing minimum income for the poor, rehousing slum dwellers, easing traffic chaos by expanding the subway network and building bus lanes, and offering incentives to businesses, hoteliers and restaurant owners who revive the city center.

But the reopened Bar Brahma is a very small start. In the streets outside, one or two classier hotels rub shoulders with pokey dollar stores, peep shows and strip joints. A few blocks away, the 19th century municipal theater has been painstakingly restored, but crime still keeps most people away.

After nightfall, for downtown read ghost town.

Sao Paulo's world-class restaurants are in ritzier neighborhoods such as Jardins or Vila Madalena. Downtown, thousands of homeless people line up for soup and a bunk at Jacarei, one of the city's 14 overcrowded hostels. They are frisked for knives and guns.

"Hellish traffic, an absence of natural beauty, pollution and violence: The city's image is not the best," acknowledges Gilberto Dimenstein, an observant chronicler of urban decay in his weekly "Urbanidade" column in the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo.

"Look up at the buildings; Sao Paulo is New York. Look down at the sidewalk; it's more New Delhi," Dimenstein said. "Put New York and New Delhi in a blender, and what would come out is Sao Paulo."

Of the 519 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean, 75% live in cities, and that figure will be 81% in 2020, according to a report written for Habitat II, a special U.N. session on the state of the world's cities held earlier this month. Sao Paulo, along with Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Lima, is already among the world's 30 largest urban agglomerations, the report says.

Greater Sao Paulo is the Third World's richest city and Brazil's economic nerve center, and it's a melting pot just like New York. But its most recent arrivals come from Brazil's poorest regions. No other Brazilian city has as many slum dwellers--2 million, experts estimate--or as many murders: more than 9,000 in 1999, compared with New York's 661.

Within city limits, some 4 million cars, smoke-belching municipal buses and legions of minivans called peruas regularly create 60-mile traffic jams. The alternative is the subway, with three lines to carry 1.7 million cramped commuters a day.

The state government and many big businesses have fled downtown to more modern boulevards farther south. The affluent have followed, taking refuge in new neighborhoods of high-rise condominiums with electric fences and fancy names, not always well chosen, such as Marie Antoinette (she of "let them eat cake" legend).

"Sao Paulo is an archipelago of islands of modern consumer society surrounded by an ocean of poverty," says Jorge Wilheim, the city's new secretary for urban planning.

According to Dimenstein, the good news is that population growth has slowed, the economy is growing, education is improving, more multinationals are using Sao Paulo as a regional hub and Brazilian business is showing more social responsibility.

"Sao Paulo has already hit rock bottom and is now, like New York in the 1960s and 1970s, going through its worst patch," Dimenstein said. "But despite this urban chaos and lack of planning, Sao Paulo has immense human riches: just like 'My Fair Lady,' Sao Paulo is a beggar waiting to be discovered."

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